This video, by VR Gorilla, is one of the first videos I ever watched in 360. "Oh cool" I thought. "I get to go inside of a zoo". Watching it, something feels wrong. The cuts, the edits - they disoriented me and left me confused. Nothing motivates the tigers cut from one scene to another - it doesn't seem to have a reason to start or stop. Go ahead and watch the video now, or this section won't make any sense.
The camera is static, and never moves between cuts or shots. The background is also perfectly static, and never moves. The footage is shot at eye-height of a tall human being, it seems.1 Following various basic guidelines for shooting with 360 video cameras.
The fundamental problem, as mentioned before, is that we do not know where the audience is looking. This clip did not do a good job guessing where the audience was looking, and the edit's are strange and uncomfortable.
What went wrong?
At 45 seconds in (or so), the tiger is walking towards the "bottom left", about to walk counter clockwise around/past the camera, and the video cuts to a clip of the tiger eating up some meat-on-a-rope. There is an audio cue, but otherwise no motivation to cut. The tiger just vanishes, and the viewer is left blinking, confused. They're literally left just staring at some dirt. They look up and over, and see the tiger again. Oh, cool - before 'pop', it jumps somewhere else.2
The video assumes the audience will continue looking forward at the rope in the scene, and they cut after the tiger left the frame. Except this is 360 video. The tiger can't leave the frame, the audience followed the tiger. The frame moved.
Options for Alignment During a Cut
This video only ever has one POI, the tiger. There's no reason to look at anything else in the scene. Ever. So, as an editor, when you cut between video, you have several options for aligning the 2 shots.
- Align on POI: Let one visual interest align with another from cut to cut. In this case, keep the tiger aligned with where it was before the cut. Since the camera is static, this may 'twist' the world aroun, confusing the audience.
- Align on Architecture: Don't disorient the viewer, keep geometry, vanishing points, or recognizable 'monuments' aligned.
- Align on Momentum: If the viewer is scanning left, tracking a moving POI and one cut's, it is strange to have to stop moving one's head the moment of the cut. The next cut should contain a similar movement, and quickly give the viewers scanning eye something to latch onto.
- Align on predicted gaze: Like POI, but you can cut to, say, where an actor is looking towards, or in the direction of a sound cue. You align the footage paying attention to where the viewer is likely going to look, but isn't necessary where the viewer is currently looking.
Re-edit to Match on POI
Let's re-edit this so that the cut matches on the POI, the tiger.
In this edit, the environment shifts to a new location, but the viewer gaze can remain latched on the tiger from cut to cut. What is more disorienting for the viewer? To have the environment shift around on them, or to be lost in a sudden cut, not sure where to look? If we accept VR Gorilla's original cut points and single-POI footage, these are our only options.
When to use what alignment option?
The goal is to let the viewer never have to 'hunt' for the scene. In other words, the viewers mind should stay on the story, not on the telling of the story. A bad edit is like an oral storyteller mumbling or not speaking loudly enough.
If they wish to go searching, or scanning, around - that should be fine. We don't want to force, or control the viewers gaze as much as provide them with the type of filmic scaffolding so they never are asking themselves "Where am I supposed to be looking?" Playing the "what does the director what me to do?" game is not ideal. Those are the types of questions that disengages an audience.
Alternatively, "I wonder what is over here..." is a question that definitely engages an audience. There is, of course, a balance to be struck here. Sometimes we might want to audience to go searching, but we must use this new trait of filmmaking with intention, understanding exactly why and what we are doing.
Filmmakers must pay attention to when and why an audience may be looking around a scene. Is it because they are lost and confused, or curious and interested? Don't just give an audience undirected freedom to look wherever they want - a film will feel uncontrolled and confusing (as so many 360 videos today do). You can't put a kid in a sandbox and say "go", and expect them to build a sandcastle. You have to prompt the child, ask them, or motivate them to want to build a sandcastle and not dig a hole. In 360 filmmaking, one can't expect a viewer to enjoy their freedom without thinking about how and why to motivate the viewer to look around and find what you want the viewer to find.
I believe this re-edit 'works'. It isn't fascinating, and it has it's own issues: the viewer never gets a chance to explore their environment, and the later cuts are perhaps unnecessary. But it doesn't break the film. With this source footage, the single POI is so strong, the viewer never wants to explore their environment. As long as the viewer is looking at the POI, at the tiger, this edit works. You never want to disorient a viewer's sense of space, but inside of the environment, the direction that 'forward' means may not matter all that much - it can change or move. I believe that the old filmmaking traditions will apply: It's okay to "break reality", twisting space around, if - when viewed - the end result is less disorienting than if space had remained constant. In this original footage, the tiger's sudden vanishing is more disorienting then the environment jumping and moving around.
Let's take this to it's extreme - why even bother have the viewer have to turn their head at all?
At this point, we should be asking ourselves the following question: Why is this content even filmed in 360 to begin with? If the environment is so obviously ignorable, why use this medium? In the case of this video, imagine if the tiger took a lap around the viewer, like the tiger seemed primed to do before the original video's first cut. Make the viewer turn their head, and work for it. Make them want to back away from the scary tiger getting closer to them. That is how 360 video could enhance source material like this.
Yet, if we are judging ourselves on the viewer never feeling lost, this edit works. Yet, I would never recommend editing a film like this. It's too overbearing and jarring and raises plenty of questions - the viewer practically wants to look away, out of rebellious spite. It goes to show, that there is never going to be a correct answer - we will have to play with limits and extremes and a variety of working options, some 'safe' some not, some interesting, others boring; all to find the perfect cut.
Although, it will be useful to explore creatively exploring that height. A photographer's rule for filming animals is to get on their eye level - I would love to see this footage from tiger-eye height. ↩
If you're paying close attention, there is a man in the background at 1:07 who vanishes at the cut at 1:09. ↩
Perhaps more literally than ever. Additionally, the 180 degree rule will more than likely apply in situations like this one, as well. ↩